By Valerie Collins
It was simply too good to be true. After ten years of a blissful dearth of dealings with Spanish officialdom, it was time to renew my Spanish identity card. Off I went to the new police station, clutching enough reading matter for a morning’s arduous queuing, wondering whether I should have taken a valium. Because those of us who have been around since the days of Franco’s dictatorship still harbour a residual terror of Spanish bureaucracy. In fact I almost missed the place entirely: muted lighting, pale wood panelling, marble floors, quietly humming computers, helpful, polite señoritas… the papers processed in what seemed like a nanosecond.
It wasn’t always like this.
I came to Barcelona in 1973 to teach English, idealistic and hopelessly naive, generation of ‘68, in purple velvet bell bottoms, emerald green kaftan covered in tiny mirrors, smelly sequinned sheepskin coat, to find that Franco’s Spain was still suspended in a medieval-cum-victorian time warp.
But all that soon changed – at breakneck speed. When Franco died in 1975 Spain shot straight into the seventies. The media were released from their shackles, political parties legalised, free elections held, the Statutes of Autonomy of Catalonia and the Basque Country reinstated. From police state to haven of sex, drugs and freedom of expression.
But the civil service took a bit longer to catch up. In those dark pre-European Union days, Work and residence permits were much coveted prizes awarded only to those with the sheer guts and stamina to survive many years of ordeal by bureaucracy.
And I mean ordeal. Think Kafka. The permits had to be applied for at your local police station. You’d turn up at 5 am, to be herded by a Rottweiler-faced policía, submachine gun at the ready, into the Foreigners Queue. English teachers and Japanese executives, Filipino maids and Barcelonans born and bred who’d committed the crime of being sired by an extranjero – we cringed and grovelled, murmuring words of hope and comfort to each other. At 9 am the functionary would arrive, triggering less than pleasant memories of Matron at school, rubbing her hands and beaming sadistically, and we got to shuffle into the building. Functionary would attend to number one in the queue, then waltz straight out again for breakfast. One of the more volatile Foreigners, usually an Italian, would then Lose It, foaming at the mouth, rolling eyes and banging head against the closed hatch.
And then, of course, you always had a paper missing. If you didn’t, they invented one. Or your photo was the wrong size. Or they forgot to take your fingerprints. And when the one-year permit finally came through eleven months later – bingo- it was time to go through it all over again!
And as if all this wasn’t enough, in the late seventies I had the crazy idea of convalidating my Classics degree. After an entire year of innumerable papers being stamped, shunted to and from ministries and consulates, translated, compulsados and generally knocked about, my degree (from one of the most august British establishments, I might add) was declared to be equivalent to years four and five of Filología (Clásica). This meant that I’d passed the last two specialisation years before doing the first three foundation ones! If I wanted my degree to be valid in Spain I would have to pass all the compulsory subjects, including Spanish Lang & Lit from years one, two and three. I would have to enrol as a first-year undergrad. Monumental was a serious understatement for the five-hour university enrolment queue. Following which, the lectures and essays and exams were a piece of cake. But those bureaucrats knew what they were doing. How else would I ever have read Don Quijote?
But after years of increasingly nightmarish permit renewals I threw in the towel: in 1982 I married my Catalan boyfriend, applied for Spanish nationality (having quadruple checked that I could still be British too) and got pregnant. The queues and papers and declarations and stamps were done in a haze of morning sickness. Later, plain clothes police and Civil Guards kept turning up at my door to interrogate, sorry, interview me. “They say nationality takes nine months too,” they would grin at my belly. “Ha, ha, ha.”
They were right: I had to be reborn. The Civil Registry Office in Madrid gave me a birth certificate and a Spanish name. Not only was I not legally obliged to take my husband’s name, I was made to add my mother’s maiden name to my own. In September 1983 I became a double-barrelled Spanish mother: Valeria Collins Sherrad.
The following spring I was ready for my final ordeal: getting my Spanish passport and one for my son, by then nine months old. Cheering myself up with the thought that this was the Last Time for five years, I settled down with a flask of coffee on the pavement outside the police station at 5.30 am – and I was number three. At nine o’clock, excitement rippled through the queue, which stretched right around the block, as the main door was unlocked. Bleary eyed, I handed the papers and photos in just after nine, tightly crossing fingers and toes and any other body parts I could manage. Please don’t let me have any papers missing, I prayed. Please. Functionary looks at my photos then at me, then back again. He shakes his head and frowns. Stands up and peers over the counter. “Where is the child? The child has to appear before me.” “No,” I plead. “No. Have pity on me. Please don’t make me come back tomorrow at 5 am with the child in his pushchair and the nappies, wipes, sponges, plastic bags, mashed spag bol in a Tupperware box, bibs, spoons, bottles, squashed bananas, two changes of clothing, Tito the one-eyed toy rabbit… He can’t sign his name. He can’t even walk or talk. Please.” “Tranquila, señora. Go and fetch the child and come straight back in. We’ll try to ensure you don’t get lynched by the queue.”
I rushed home, snatched my son from his highchair and whizzed him back to the police station. He beamed at the functionary, gurgled, and brought up his breakfast.
And then it was time for the inner journey of True Integration. I did it all. I worked at a big Barcelona publishing house with a great horde of mothers and I tried really hard to do the Catalan Supermum thing, swapping recipes and remembering to air-kiss people on both cheeks when it was their saint’s day and making carnival costumes for the kids. I did my bit to renew Catalonia’s gene pool and had another baby.
And then Spain joined the Common Market.
I have only one regret. They should never have convalidated my British driving licence without making me do the Spanish test. To pass, you see, you have to be able to reverse elegantly into an impossible parking space and straighten up in only two movements in the middle of the rush hour, no bumps, no scrapes, no traffic jam building up behind you honking and fist-waving, no threats of divorce, no third-party claims. The bureaucrats slipped up badly on that one, didn’t they. A bit of timely sadism would have saved a fortune at the repair shop.
© Valerie Collins, 2000
First published at Kafeniocom.com, August 2000